For two millennia the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, first practiced as a discipline of life by the desert fathers, have continued to draw faithful men and women into spiritual solitude and contemplation for the end of the perfection of the soul. Endless treatises from the Life of Antony
to letters of Augustine to the Dialogues
of Gregory the Great and the Ecclesiastical History
of St. Bede have extolled the glories of the religious life and been instrumental in leading Catholics to seek perfection through the evangelical counsels. This continues today; the Catechism speaks about the perpetual fruit borne by observance of the evangelical counsels:"From the God-given seed of the counsels a wonderful and wide-spreading tree has grown up in the field of the Lord, branching out into various forms of the religious life lived in solitude or in community. Different religious families have come into existence in which spiritual resources are multiplied for the progress in holiness of their members and for the good of the entire Body of Christ" (CCC 917).
The purpose of entering religious life is "progress in holiness." Those who seek this progress are seeking nothing less than Christian perfection, "Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). But those who are seeking perfection are obviously already on their way towards perfection, else they wouldn't be seeking the kind of radical progress in holiness that the religious life is meant to provide. How far along the path to holiness must one be before thinking of entering religious life? How mature should a Christian be who wants to profess the evangelical counsels? Is a person who is still struggling with major sin fit to present themselves for membership in a religious order, or should a person considering a religious vocation have attained some minimal level of ascesis before considering such a decision?
Let us begin our examination of this question with a quote from the second Letter of St. Peter:
"...he hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature: flying the corruption of that concupiscence which is in the world. And you, employing all care, minister in your faith, virtue; and in virtue, knowledge; And in knowledge, abstinence; and in abstinence, patience; and in patience, godliness; And in godliness, love of brotherhood; and in love of brotherhood, charity. For if these things be with you and abound, they will make you to be neither empty nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he that hath not these things with him, is blind, and groping, having forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore, brethren, labor the more, that by good works you may make sure your calling and election.
" (2 Pet. 1:4-10)
Although the passage cited above is directed towards Christians in general, it does have a particular application to those entering religious life. We see first that when one actively pursues holiness, one is also fleeing from something else; "flying the corruption of that concupiscence which is in the world." The religious pursues holiness, but he pursues it by shunning worldliness. This is the classic motive behind the flight to the desert of the Fathers, and it shoots down the sort of sentimentality about religious houses as expressed, for example, in Sound of Music
when Reverend Mother tells Maria, "Maria, these walls were not built to shut out problems." I beg to differ, Revered Mother. Religious houses are not meant to shut out problems qua
problems, but they were indeed meant to shut out a very large sort of specific problems, the "corruption of that concupiscence which is in the world."
So he who would enter religious life ought to be resolved to be done with the corruptions and concupiscence of the world. What does this mean practically? Even if they are still in the world at the time, there should be a firm resolve of avoiding the entanglements of the world and a disdain for that worldly spirit that is evident in an immature soul. In other words, there ought already be present some interior detachment
; this interior detachment will be the seed for the exterior detachment that is to follow, and that exterior detachment in turn will strengthen the internal detachment as the soul progresses toward perfection. To what specific degree one needs to be detached is a matter to be addressed with one's spiritual director, but it seems a point of common sense that without some degree of detachment one is not ready to start thinking seriously about the religious life.
But what if that individual is still struggling with serious sin? I am of course not referring to venial sin that every Christian will struggle against so long as they are in the flesh, but sins of a more grave nature? There are two interesting points of view here; on the one hand, we could argue that such a person should enter religious life as a means of obtaining the grace necessary to overcoming their weakness; on the other hand, we could say that one should never put themselves under vows to keep strict disciplines when one cannot even keep the commandments in general even without vows. Both objections have merit; the former focuses on religious life as a means to an end, the latter looks at the religious life as a kind of end in itself.
The truth is that religious life is both. The enter the consecrated life, especially a life of consecrated contemplation, is a sort of end; it facilitates a closeness to God that is about as close as a human in the flesh can get, and to live a life of heroic virtue in the contemplative religious state is a worthy end or aspiration for any Christian. But even this is also a means, insofar as all people are viators in this life, a religious vocation lived out well itself is only preparatory and symbolic of the life to come.
Since religious life is both a means and an end of sorts, the answer is that one who has the constancy of will, as well as a practical plan for combating their predominate fault under the careful eye of a spiritual director, they should not be dissuaded from seeking religious life, "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have" (1 Cor. 8:12). We cannot discard the many stories in the lives of the saints of robbers, murders and general scoundrels having sudden conversions and immediately joining a monastery. It can happen, although in the stories it usually happens with the personal involvement of a saint as well.
But we must also recall that the novitiate serves as a forge in which the soul gets to test and see if the prayers, rules, disciplines, and guidance of their novice master aids them. The novitiate is meant to weed out those who are not called to the religious life or, conversely, confirm the call in those who are by granting them the special graces they need to overcome their faults and take their place as full members in the religious community. Religious orders do not need people who are holy, but wholly committed with a good will to try and become holy, or at least docile to formation. The important things, as the quote from St. Paul above points out, is that the willingness and resolve is there. If that alone can be given t God, any mountain can be moved.
We should understand that the two issues regarding one's desire for holiness and discerning a religious call are very intimately connected and even effect each other. Lack of mortification or docility to God's grace makes it less clear if one has a vocation to begin with; an unmortified person has great difficulty in distinguishing the gentle leading of the spirit from his own ideas and emotions. Conversely, a person who practices ascesis, even while in the world, is more likely to accurately discern a call from God and make a decision based on the proper motivations and after considering the cost with great prudence.
We need not be saints to be religious, but we must want to be. But if we cannot even seriously make this effort in the lay state, we are not fit to present ourselves.
"He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater." (Luke 16:10)